What Is Beautiful Light?

Part 1

My mother liked to say that “lighting is everything.” It was one of many bon mots she had at the ready. I always thought it a kind of funny vanity thing, but over the years, I’ve come to value it as something more serious. A kind of trade secret. A mantra. An approach.

As a photographer, one of your main preoccupations is light. It’s an elusive part of the occupation, often misleadingly broken up into Natural Light and Studio Light. But in both cases, it gets exceedingly complicated the more you explore it. Today, when I think about the role of light in my work, I think of light almost reverentially. Maybe more so now than even my camera or lens.

Not every image requires beautiful light — or whatever we conceive of as beautiful light — if you are a photojournalist or macro photographer, this may not be a thing you like to think about. But certainly if you do architecture, portraiture, landscape, editorial or fashion photography then it is likely a preoccupation. What is beautiful light? Is it the sparkling, hard-to-put-your-finger-on-it quality of crisp, maybe atmospherically-enhanced sunlight? Is it evening light, right as the sun sinks into the ocean in its dripping yellows and oranges? Is it dramatic, single-source light, like a midnight lamp in a foggy London park? Is it all of that? Is it whatever you want it to be?

Some say, “light is light,” as if there can be no distinction — it’s there or it isn’t. There’s no qualification that makes one type of light better than another. Maybe not. Maybe a lumen is just a lumen. Dial up, dial down. But as a photographer, light and lighting are different things. Light may be light, but lighting is nuanced, crafted, shaped, diffused, bounced and reflected. You can have, one, two, three or more. Spot lights. Bogo’d lights. Catch lights. There’s modifiers, stands, umbrellas. Light is light but what you do with it… that is lighting.

Close The Menu

Since beautiful light is obviously an abstract idea, it is one of those things that will happen for you as soon as you decide to have a deep opinion on it. If you search for it, that search will reveal to you hundreds or thousands of options. And in the end, it will be like looking at a deli menu. Close the menu, think about what you hunger for, and there you will discover a foundation for beautiful light. And possibly a great pastrami sandwich.

What I will attempt to do from here is to talk about my own foundation for beautiful light, and how I achieve it. My least favorite articles on photography are the broad ones and my most favorite articles on photography are the ones from passionate students of a genre with strong personal opinions. Those tend to offer the most salient advice and unlock very specific craft-driven pieces of knowledge. For myself, I have two specific ideas of beauty light: one is about light’s role, and the other is about how light looks on humans.

Seen Light Is Beautiful Light

A common way to have light be a factor in your imagery is simply to shoot it. In the image at the top of the article, there was a nice amount of atmosphere in the air that day, causing these beams of light to descend into the tunnel I was in. In that instance you’re actually seeing the light. But this idea of seeing the light comes into play outside all the time. It’s more about inclusion than quality here.

If you choose to shoot INTO the light source (usually the sun), instead of away from it, then you are including it. And that, in my opinion is beautiful. Because the sun is beautiful. Cue the sun flares, rim light, starbursts, beams of light, etc.

But you can also shoot the light without shooting into it. And that, to me, is the holy grail. In this way of seeing light, you’re actually shooting its behavior. The early morning creep onto a building, the dappled droplets of light through trees, the geometry of light through the gaps of a fence. This is light seen.

I reference this Carl Mydans image quite a bit. This is the image my mother hung in our house when I was young and it was the one that propelled me into this profession. I believe it is perfect, on many levels. But if you look solely at the triangles of reflected light off the rooftops of this Wales neighborhood, it is a sublime example of seen light. And, of course, in my own image above it, you can see its influence.

I like this kind beauty because it says something about how awestruck the photographer was beholding the incredible effects of light in the world. It has a wonder and curiosity to it that expresses passion, humility and craft. The artist sees the light. The viewer sees the artist.

Diffused Light Is Beautiful Light

The other kind of beautiful light is the kind I can make myself.

Here’s what I’m seeing in this image: all the shape of this (my) boy’s face is there. It’s clearly directional, single source lighting and so I feel the volume and three-dimensionality of the face. Which is to say, it feels real. Yet, there are no dark shadows. No deep blackness on the dark side of his nose, under his lip, or even all the way over on the non-lit side of his face.

To me, this is the most beautiful light possible in a controlled environment. That’s just my pastrami sandwich.

It is achieved through a regimented and dogmatic approach to lighting that takes the right equipment and the right discipline. Like a carefully-crafted phrase, the set-up is deceptively simple:

Here’s exactly what you’re looking at: on the right is the 190cm Litemotiv Octa from Elinchrom. On the left is an 8-foot flat board with black on one side and white on the other. And in the middle is the backdrop. That’s it. But of course, it gets complicated when you start dissecting it.

For starters, this light modifier is not cheap. It took me decades before I felt okay to get it. The secret of its success has a number of factors: 1, it’s indirect light, so the light source faces INTO it and reflects out. 2, the surface that the light is bouncing off of is a high-quality silver fabric on the inside that distributes and breaks up the harsh light. 3, it’s going through another process of diffusion as it travels through the scrim. 4, for how big this light is, it’s also very shallow, offering up a wider angle of light, which means you can face it further away from the subject and still get spill off light onto them. This is like a laboratory experiment in creating the most diffused light possible.

As you hopefully can see in this photo, the light isn’t facing the backdrop at all, it’s facing the black board. The subject sits further back and this heavily diffused light just barely catches the sitting subject on the outer edge of its angle.

The size of the light source is important because the larger it is, the more it wraps around the face. And wrapping around the face is what fills in the shadows. And the black board further accentuates the darks for more volume. Some will flip that board around and use the white side to bounce light into the shadows — which is also very beautiful.

And you know how else you can achieve this light? By placing your subject next to a window. Here’s that same boy a few years back, with his mother, who has already begun the process of explaining the world to him through the complicated simplicity of motherhood:

Light reveals what we love. It can do it harshly or it can do it with grace and beauty. When it does it in the latter form, the quality of light equals the quality of our existence.

Lighting is everything.

Thank you for reading. You can follow more of my photography work here.

I’m just a boy, standing behind this camera, asking it to love me. Top Writer on Photography, Professor of photojournalism, Leica Akademie Instructor. ♥ Tacos.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store